Sunday, February 26, 2012

deep river

My home is over Jordan.

-- Spiritual

The past is never dead. It's not even past.

-- William Faulkner

The bass line goes so deep I can't sing it, I'm only a baritone. So I sing the upper bass, near the bottom of a sliding column of eight voices. The room is just big enough for sixty of us. When we all hit the chords just right my head rings, and for the next days and nights my brain rings too. I can't find the off-switch. Not an unpleasant condition this, but it I'm likely to get lost in the subway: I could miss my stop while the chords in my head are descending again into the deep.

I don't look very hard for the off-switch. My home is over Jordan, I want to cross over. I'm obsessed with a song from another world: it was not meant to speak my mind. It speaks against me, so why does it stick to me so?

We don't know the names of those who made songs like this. The buyers and sellers of those people suppressed their names and their languages, stole their present labor and their future hope as well, manipulating their loving and child-bearing by principles of animal husbandry. The singers were exiles and unwilling sojourners, and nothing here belonged to them not even their children. This was not their home.

The songs must have had a comforting surface, because it's said that even the masters loved to hear them. From the veranda the singing must have sounded like resignation. There's no happiness for me here, so I'll get my reward in the next world, where my home is. The masters were glad to let the souls of chattel be rewarded, provided that first they got full value of the bodies they had bought or bred. Good, they said to each other of an evening, good. Let them sing. Let the happy darkies tranquilize themselves.

White folks may still mistake the songs for opiate, hearing them as the masters did. Heard that way, the songs offend or bore us. Offend us because they seem to accept what should not be accepted. Bore us, because that is how we stay distant from the suffering our parents profited from. How can we enjoy these songs, knowing what we know now?

The songs of enslaved persons present a conundrum also for descendants who are not enslaved. Can the songs that braced the soul in soul-crushing times model the ways of prosperity? Can survival-songs of the powerless teach the use of power?

The masters were bamboozled. They swallowed a sugar-coated pill, and what they took into their guts, their bones and hearts, was defiance cleverly disguised, exposed and concealed in the same phrase. Frederick Douglas himself said that he "did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of these rude and apparently incoherent songs." It was only as a free man that he realized "slaves sing most when they are most unhappy,"* and this body of their work realizes -- makes real -- their hope.  Jordan is a river of new life -- "Wade in the water, children." Jordan is not Styx but the Ohio.

Naming your home is resistance. To name your home as somewhere else is rebellion. I am a human being, they said; I belong somewhere in this world, but I ought not to be here. Some singers thought death would be better than this. Some thought they could return to their African homelands across the deep river of Ocean. But many were thinking of crossing a North American river, where the kingdom of enslavement met its boundary.  On the other shore was a place where you could belong to yourself. Some were planning their escape -- "Follow the drinking gourd," the Little Dipper that contains the North Star. They remembered that they were people of the Promise Land. And when they got there, there would be no boundaries, and they would "walk all over God's Heaven."

There's no way to do the research that would confirm this, but this art for sure saved lives. Surviving and remembering who you are in the face of cruelty is a victory. The masters knew what was at stake, and they did all they could to erase the memory of home. But actual Jordan is not in question here; the depth of Jordan River is poetic. Neither written nor aural scripture measures the river. The choir was saying, I ought not to be here, I ought to cross the water again, or take the underground railroad to freedom. Who are we? we are the people from elsewhere, people of Promise.

I think all this as I try to remember to get off the train. But when the chord hits just right my head melts and I'm not sure what wall I will walk into next, or what part of the city I'll arrive at. I'm outside of myself. That's what ecstasy is, standing outside. I guess this is why people sing, why they once sang -- to get through the day that they couldn't get through without the song. To escape and save themselves for another day. To remember where they came from.

Frederick Douglass, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," The Classic Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: New American Library, 2002), pp. 349-350.

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